Driver, Felix. Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire. Oxford, UK and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001. vii + 258, illus., maps, biblio., index, ISBN 0 631 20112 2. $16.99 (paper).

Almost at the end of this wonderful book, Felix Driver (who is professor of geography at Royal Holloway, University of London) quotes the distinguished American scholar Clarence Glacken, who declared that the historian of geography “who stays within the limits of his discipline sips thin gruel.” With Geography Militant, Driver has dined sumptuously at the Ritz-Carlton. To great advantage, he has quite successfully mined many veins of knowledge far beyond those disciplines where geographers normally toil. Rather than concentrate solely on the adventures of explorers (in this case, Britons who trekked in Africa), he takes the reader into the realm of the cultures of exploration. He is concerned with how exploration narratives were “produced and consumed,” who aided (and hindered) explorers, who benefited from their accomplishments, how their exploits were publicized, and, most vitally, what role the public played in the theater of geographical adventure. Among the unlikely places the reader is led on Driver’s itinerary are the British High Court of Justice, the Victoria Gallery on Regents Street, the slums of Victorian cities in Britain, and the parlors of secular thinkers and abolitionists. Each place is revealed as pertinent and fascinating.

The title of this volume is drawn from an article that Joseph Conrad published in National Geographic in 1924. Conrad wrote about Geography Fabulous, Geography Militant, and Geography Triumphant. He claimed that these were the three epochs in the history of geographical knowledge, and that Geography Militant clearly was the most important. In the romantic period of Geography Militant (especially in the nineteenth century), empirical knowledge of the earth’s geography was diligently sought, and the “foot soldiers” in this quest were heroic land and sea explorers. Driver, in the end, disagrees with Conrad who, with lament, had declared the demise of Geography Militant. Driver presents in his last chapter considerable evidence that Geography Militant still thrives today, having been regenerated in the literature of advertising and tourism, in adventure stories, in the sale of exploration relics in auction houses, and even in fashion magazines.

David Livingstone, the subject of chapter 4, is considered by Driver to be the best example of the “cultures of exploration.” Livingstone is not presented as the solitary traveler in central Africa learning about new places and exposing the slave trade; rather, Driver discusses the “network of interests” that sustained both his life and death. The networks were represented iconographically by the Bible, the sextant, his famous consular cap, and by missionary and anti-slavery bills in Parliament. Quoting Harry Johnston, Livingstone was also declared a “martyr to that form of religion which we call science.” Not only did the scientific establishment claim Livingstone, almost every element of British society wanted a piece of him. This, in essence, explains the term “cultures of exploration.”

Driver suggests that Livingstone was the last of the heroic explorers of Africa, and Henry Stanley was the first of a new breed. Stanley, of course, was accused of conducting “sensational” exploration, and worse, exploration by warfare. Some called him the “Napoleon of African Travellers.” Stanley’s actions in Africa raised the ire of virtually every liberal organization in the British Isles, especially the Anti-Slavery and the Aborigines Protection societies, and Driver devotes much attention to their making him their whipping-boy. To them, Stanley was everything Livingstone was not. As in the chapter on Livingstone, Driver does not dwell on Stanley’s geographical exploits, but expounds on the contemporary responses to his reputation as an explorer. Driver excels in this narrative, and this is where his notion of “cultures of exploration” is truly fleshed out. In my opinion, this is the book’s most important and revealing chapter. 

Other chapters certainly deserve their due. Driver’s account of the role played by the Royal Geographical Society in the “cultures of exploration” (chapter 2), and on “General” William Booth’s In Darkest England (chapter 8) are excellent. It was not by coincidence that Booth (the founder of the Salvation Army) entitled his sensationalist book after Stanley’s In Darkest Africa. It was an account of Booth’s “exploration” of cities in Britain, and an exposé of the conditions experienced by its urban poor. Early on in his book Booth wrote, “As there is a darkest Africa is there not also a darkest England?” Within a month of publication in 1890, it sold 115,000 copies. Another meritorious discourse concerns one W. Winwood Reade (chapter 5), who, according to Driver, “was a far from eminent Victorian.” Nonetheless, the story of this all but forgotten free-thinking novelist, cum explorer of Africa, provides another poignant example of how explorers were romantically perceived in Victorian society during the epoch of Militant Geography. 

This volume contains so many meaty ideas, it is difficult in a short review to give them the attention they properly deserve. Suffice it to say, Felix Driver’s Geography Militant is a tour de force. The research conducted to write this remarkable book is impeccable. Over 25 jam-packed pages of bibliography attest to its completeness. Furthermore, well-represented are a large number of citations to very recently published literature. Even though Geography Militant focuses on nineteenth- century Africa and Victorian Britain, it deserves the attention of all who have an interest in geographical exploration and discovery, no matter what their specialties might be. 

Sanford H. Bederman
Georgia State University


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